BEMIDJI, MINN. – No one knew except for Gophers coach Don Lucia and a few members of his staff. The MacNaughton Cup, the massive silver trophy awarded to the winner of the WCHA’s regular-season championship, was locked inside a car in the parking lot of Bemidji’s Sanford Center — just in case it was needed for a celebration Saturday night.
The Gophers had won the cup last season, and Lucia had asked assistant coach Grant Potulny to bring it from Minneapolis for the regular-season finale at Bemidji State. After the Gophers’ 5-1 victory, they monitored the final minutes of the other games that would decide their fate. Upon hearing St. Cloud State and North Dakota had lost, making the Gophers co-champions with the Huskies, they were stunned to see Lucia and strength coach Cal Dietz carry the cup into their locker room.
Setting a tone
The Gophers (24-7-5, 16-7-5 WCHA) finished with their second league sweep of the season to tie St. Cloud State with 37 points, winning a share of the MacNaughton Cup for the 14th time. They earned their second consecutive title in their final year as a member of the WCHA before joining the Big Ten Conference next season.
That infused the weekend with sentiment and history, but the Gophers also set a tone for the future. They overwhelmed scrappy Bemidji State (6-20-8, 5-16-7 WCHA), outshooting the Beavers 40-24 and scoring three consecutive goals to put the game away. The teams will meet again next weekend in the first round of the WCHA playoffs at Mariucci Arena.
St. Cloud State could have won the cup outright with a victory but lost 3-2 at Wisconsin. North Dakota also could have claimed a share of the title, but it lost 2-1 in overtime to Minnesota State, Mankato. The Gophers, who earned the No. 2 seed for the playoffs, enter the postseason with three consecutive victories.
“I’m really excited for our players,’’ Lucia said. “We did our job. We won a couple of games this weekend to scratch and claw (to the title). It’s extra special when it’s the last year of the WCHA to get a piece of it.’’
Nick Bjugstad scored the game-winner at 14 minutes, 42 seconds of the first period. Christian Isackson raced down the right wing and spotted him all alone in the left circle, sending him a pass that Bjugstad converted into his third goal of the series.
That followed Erik Haula’s early goal to stake the Gophers to a 2-0 lead. Matt Prapavessis scored for the Beavers to pull them within 2-1 at 1:55 of the second period, but the Gophers outshot Bemidji State 23-10 in the period and extended the lead to 3-1 when Zach Budish swept in a loose puck in the crease.
From start to finish
In the rematch, the Gophers did a much better job of moving the puck through the neutral zone, avoiding the frequent turnovers that troubled them in Friday’s 4-3 victory. That allowed them to use their speed and crisp passing to set up good chances. Haula finished the game with a goal and two assists, while three others — Bjugstad, Isackson and Jake Parenteau — each finished with a goal and an assist.
Lucia said the Gophers were focused and energized, doing both the grunt work and the fancier tasks with equal enthusiasm.
Consistency has been a continuing issue for the Gophers, one they have been trying to address for the past several weeks. On Saturday, they were strong from start to finish.
“Everyone stepped up,’’ Bjugstad said. “ All four lines were buzzing, and all the D were buzzing. It’s great to have the cup back.’’
The Gophers finished their game before St. Cloud State and North Dakota ended theirs. The locker room erupted in cheers when they heard the scores — and moments later, when the cup was carried in, they began singing and hollering all over again.
“We were pretty surprised,’’ Budish said. “I don’t think anyone expected the Cup to be here. It’s nice to get a piece of it. At the same time, we’re hoping for bigger and better things.’’